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In the Catholic Church, the mariachi Mass brings an ensemble of garishly dressed folk musicians right down front. They play liturgical music on guitars, trumpets and violins. It's a musical tradition found in Mexican American enclaves mostly in the Southwestern U.S. As part of series, Ecstatic Voices, NPR's John Burnett attended what's believed to be the oldest running mariachi Mass in America.

He found it in Houston.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Some Catholics cannot imagine celebrating the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12 without a mariachi Mass.

REVEREND FRANCIS MACATANGAY: Viva nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Viva.

BURNETT: The band members stand solemnly in their black decorative charro suits next to the alter in front of a large picture of the patron saint of Mexico, their instruments filling the sacred space.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: We're inside the grand old red-brick St. Joseph Catholic Church in Houston's historic Sixth Ward. The priest recites the curie(ph) and The Lord's Prayer and reads the gospel leaving lots of space for musical interludes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: The creation of the mariachi Mass was a direct result of the Second Vatican Council's reforms to Roman Catholic liturgy in 1963. Father Virgilio Elizondo is a longtime priest in San Antonio and professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame.

REVEREND VIRGILIO ELIZONDO: So at the end of the Vatican Council, the Vatican said for the renewal of the liturgy, the local genius of the people should be used in the art, in the music.

(SOUNDBITE FROM MARIACHI MASS)

ELIZONDO: Our soul music is the mariachi music.

BURNETT: In 1966, the bishop of Cuernavaca, Mexico, commissioned a mariachi folk Mass that came to be called "la Misa Panamericana." It has become the standard repertoire of mariachis in church.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: This is Mariachi Norteno, one of Houston's most venerable groups says Pat Jasper. She's director of folk life at the Houston Arts Alliance.

PAT JASPER: They may have been the first mariachi group in the United States to introduce "la Misa Panamericana." But maybe more important than that is that they perhaps are the only group that has continued to play that Mass every week for the last 45 years.

BURNETT: The mariachi Mass came to Houston because of a music-loving parish priest at St. Joseph named Father Patricio Flores. He heard about the Panamerican Mass in Cuernavaca and he organized a trip to go there with members of Mariachi Norteno. They listened, they brought it back to Texas, and they've been playing it ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Father Flores went on to become Archbishop Flores, the first Mexican-American bishop in the Catholic Church and he earned the nickname, "the mariachi bishop." But just because Vatican II invited mariachis into church didn't mean they were always welcome. Some parishioners didn't think cantina music should be part of the Order of Mass. They thought it was loud and undignified.

Guitarist Jose Martinez, a 69-year-old retired refinery worker is one of the original members of Mariachi Norteno.

JOSE MARTINEZ: There was some resistance in the Catholic Church. Some of the priests said, no, you can't play that kind of music in my church. And, slowly but surely, they started getting used to it, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Mariachi Norteno has a few younger members now. Thirty-three year old Robert Vasquez plays the vihuela, a guitarlike instrument; his father, Guadalupe, is the group's original trumpeter. Robert says performing the Panamerican Mass is altogether different than playing "Jalisco" or "Paloma Negra" at weddings.

ROBERT VASQUEZ: It's a lot deeper because you're here with God. It's different. I mean, the music, mariachi music is not like the note is supposed to go this long. You've got to have the feeling. I can honestly say I don't hear another mariachi Mass the way that we play it here. It's probably the best.

BURNETT: Not surprisingly, the Panamerican Mass is performed most often in Southern border states. But the Father Virgilio Elizondo says he has heard it all over, from New York City to Peoria, Illinois.

ELIZONDO: This last weekend, I was at Yale University for their Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass. They had a fantastic mariachi choir. So it has really spread.

BURNETT: As the Latino population continues to surge in the United States, the sound of violins and trumpets in church is likely to spread even further.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

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